A brief history of afternoon tea and high tea

These days, Afternoon Tea and High Tea are often associated with each other, deemed to be the same thing and often misconstrued by tourists and locals alike. However, the background history of both types of “tea” are quite different in some ways.  Here is a brief overview on how each type of tea originated.

Afternoon Tea

English Afternoon Tea is served between 4 and 5 o’clock and has been fashionable since 1840 thanks to Anna, the most elegant and influential Duchess of Bedford. No longer would the Duchess wait for dinner at 8!  At first, she asked her butler to bring a tray to her room, but soon decided to invite her friends to join her.

Afternoon Tea quickly became a social event for the upper classes who would take their tea seated on low, cushioned chairs and sofas inside or in the garden. By the 1880s afternoon tea had become an elegant occasion for which ladies dressed formally. We owe Anna our gratitude for bringing to afternoon tea the delightful small sandwiches (cucumber is a traditional favorite), cakes and pastries and scones with clotted cream that have become a grand tradition for the English and visitors alike.

High Tea

English High Tea was a necessary meal in the 18th and 19th centuries for those not part of the upper classes. In newly-industrialized Britain, workers often arrived home late and hungry. High Tea was enjoyed at the table, between 5 and 7 o’clock, and included a mug of strong tea, bread and cheese, vegetables and, sometimes, meat, pies and potatoes, making it more of a meal than a snack for instance.

This traditional High Tea still exists in parts of Northern England and Scotland. The upper classes soon adopted their own version of High Tea, adding pigeon, veal, salmon and fruit to the menu — trading cushions and sofas for dining chairs at the table.

Since then though, the times and the pace of our lives have changed and Afternoon Tea and High Tea are now quite similar. The menu may focus on either sweet or savoury offerings — and include tea – and sometimes a tall glass of something fizzy.

Find out more about our afternoon tea menus and info at https://www.swanlondon.co.uk/afternoon-tea/ and spend an afternoon at Swan.